Written by Mrs. Semro, Middle Team Teacher
You can be smarter. You can learn to be a smarter person. Sound good? It certainly would to most people. Intelligence is highly valued in our society, even revered. Why wouldn’t it be? Intelligence is equated with success, thus a handy quality to bring to the table in any situation. It would seem that if someone is smart, they are always smart, and they should automatically be successful. This concept is referred to as a fixed mindset, a belief in fixed intelligence. In reality, research is showing us that when it comes to intelligence a growth-mindset is more valuable and demonstrates more successful outcomes than a fixed-mindset. Let’s edit an old saying to something new. Smart is as smart does.
Growth-mindset is currently a trendy topic, but it truly has tremendous value in our educational system and should not be underestimated. Allyson Devers published a study on how student mindsets can affect academic outcomes. She conducted the study in an advanced physics classroom, arguably a population of all “smart” people. Ms. Devers found that by emphasizing students’ abilities as malleable rather than fixed, there was an increase in academic performance and progress. This is one of many studies with similar findings. Decades of research are teaching us that overemphasizing intelligence hinders, rather than encourages success, and emphasizing work and effort increases success.
A fixed-mindset is one that perceives ability or intelligence as incapable of growth or improvement. For many, this is where learned helplessness begins. These students feel their innate intelligence or ability are set. When confronted by a challenge, they feel the outcome is predestined. These children are fearful of challenges and more vulnerable to failure, whether they believe their fixed intelligence is high or low. Stanford researcher David Paunesku observed 265,000 students studying math online at Khan Academy. Students in five different groups were presented with varying messages (basic encouragement, random facts, growth mindset) or no message at all, while working. Paunesku found that students who were given a growth mindset (“Remember, the more you practice, the smarter you become!”) message mastered new concepts at a higher rate than students who were given other types of messages or no message at all. The student believed they could do more and achieve more, so they did.
If a fixed-mindset is holding our students back and a growth-mindset is beneficial, how can we help our students move towards what we know is better? We do so by using more effective and thoughtful praise and reinforcement. A fairly well known 1998 study of fifth graders by Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck examined how specific feedback affected student effort on non-verbal IQ tests. One group of students were complimented on their hard work on the test, while the other group of students were praised for their intelligence. Performance on subsequent material improved for students whose work and effort were reinforced. In contrast, students who were complimented on their intelligence fared more poorly on subsequent material.
Students need to believe in the value of work. They need to believe that their outcomes are not fixed, that their abilities are not innate. How do we help our students? We praise the effort, the work and the process of learning. Those are skills they need reinforced, and a mindset they can buy into.